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Homo Futurus: How Radically Should We Remake Ourselves - Or Our Children?
Tuesday, 30 January 2007 22:35
by R.J. Eskow
Should parents have the right to choose their baby's gender? How about its sexual preference? Intelligence? Physical appearance? And are these left/right questions?

Futurists see a conflict forming over our dominion over the human body, and over the choices we make about our biological future - and that of our children. Some call it a clash between "bioliberals" and "bioconservatives," and frame it as a debate over individual rights.
When it comes to transforming one's own body they may be right, but it gets thornier when children are involved.
Is our only choice between a transhumanist future where children are genetically designed to win on "American Idol," or a world where authoritarians rule our most personal choices? The answer, sadly, may be yes.
Am I a "bioliberal" or "bioconservative"? That's not a question I can answer. The use of politically-based terminology is understandable but, in the end, I find it more misleading than helpful. The left/right construct is not particularly apt in this case.
Transhumanists - those who advocate the use of science to alter the human future - don't often receive a lot of press attention, but they may be playing an instrumental role in reshaping our lives. Some of them have adopted the "bioliberal" label, and other thinkers have used the term "liberal eugenics," but I don't believe the labels are helpful or informative.

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Philosopher Jurgen Habermas is clearly progressive in the political sphere, but argues against a number of genetic modifications. Newt Gingrich, who doesn't hesitate to use fundamentalist religion to support his conservative movement, supports leading transhumanist Ray Kurzweil.
Transhumanists argue for that even the most radical physical modifications of the body will become commonplace, and that the body itself may soon be obsolete. Some of them argue that any form of choice is acceptable, including decisions regarding the gender, sexuality, and other traits of their children. That means that some of them are arguing from what appears to be more of a libertarian perspective than a liberal one.
Another term the "bioliberals" use for themselves is "techno-progressive," as explained in this Wikipedia entry (although, without taking sides in the conflict, I would suggest that Wikipedia review this entry for bias).
This piece by Russell Blackford documents the argument made by Elizabeth Fenton against Habermas (the Fenton article is unavailable for direct linking). Fenton restricts her argument to whether Habermas is correct when he asserts there is a naturally-grounded form of human nature, and that it is a violation of human dignity to alter that.
Fenton is eloquent in her defense of humanity's "right to evolve," and I support the transhumanists' rights to alter their own biophysical makeup. But I'd like to see more sophisticated debate about the right of parents to pick their children's physical and behavioral traits.
It's no longer a matter of individual rights when parents are making decisions on behalf of unborn children. Doesn't the state have a legitimate interest in protecting children? Yes, the transhumanists would respond, but only if those particular children would be harmed by the parents' choices. The social impact of the parents' decision (e.g. to select gender or sexual preference) is outside the state's purview. I suspect they're right, and I certainly don't want the state making personal decisions for individuals or families. But I'd like to see more thorough discussion and debate.

Overall, I can't agree with Blackford's characterization of the debate when he says the following:

... liberal eugenics would allow parents considerable scope to select their childrens' genetic potentialities. It stands in contrast to authoritarian eugenics: historical attempts by the state to control the distributions of genetic traits across an entire population.
I think it's more complicated than that. The conflict isn't just between "liberals" and "authoritarians." That "considerable scope" could result in biology that's driven by extremist ideology (no gays please) or fashion movements (every girl a Paris Hilton! Every boy a Jared Leto!)
Yes, the alternative might be a state attempt to control eugenics. But it might also be a state attempt to prevent the control of genetic traits by shallow fashion, demagogic political movements, and the fickle hand of the free market. Here again, I would suggest that "liberal" is not the right term (especially since liberals support state intervention for social good). I'd characterize the Blackford position as libertarian eugenics.
The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is a organization that addresses these issues from a transhumanist perspective, including Blackford's. It's a discussion that's well worth having. Their last reader poll asked the question "Should doctors be imprisoned for telling women the sex of their fetus?"
In India, it's illegal for a doctor to do exactly that. Is that an unjust law, as the IEET's readers overwhelmingly believe? Before you answer, note that the doctor's answer may well mean that far fewer girl children will be born into Indian families. Imagine a future India, heavily industrialized due to outsourcing, and almost bereft of women and girls.

I would say that, yes, it is an unjust law. But once again, there are no easy answers. There are, however, some very interesting questions.

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Comments (3)add comment

a guest said:

The problem with transhumanism
The problem with transhumanism is it is not about what it claims to be. If the actual purpose was simply to help humanity and cure us of all disease, I would be all for it. Unfortunately when you look at the real agenda and who is behind the push for transgenic manipulation of humans you see that "advancing human evolution" is not at all the purpose. Modern day transgenics is run by the same people who where behind the push for Eugenics in the not-so-distant past. The real agenda is essentially to create a "Brave New World" society with an upper class (who can afford modification) which is genetically modified who will rule over the rest of us who are still sick and disease ridden from sucking down genetically modified foods and prescription drugs, among other things. Eventually the lower classes too will be genetically engineered to be a literal slave class somewhat similar to how it was in Brave New World. Brave New World as you might remember was written by Aldous Huxley, what is relatively unknown is that Huxley's brother, Julian Huxley, was a top eugenicist who worked for the world health organization. Julian Huxley is the actual originator of the term "Transhumanism" and he was one of the worlds top eugenicists. To wind this up, Aldous Huxley later in life spoke about how he got the idea for the book Brave New World, and you know what he said? He said he got the idea for the book from his brother Julian, and that it was the official plan of the UN for the future. I will leave you with this quote from a famous British Lord and a true Philosopher King.

"Gradually, by selective breeding, the congenital differences between rulers and ruled will increase until they become almost different species. A revolt of the plebs would become as unthinkable as an organized insurrection of sheep against the practice of eating mutton."
~Bertrand Russell, "The Impact of Science on Society", 1953, pg 49-50
January 31, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

Correction: Julian worked for UNESCO, my apologies.
January 31, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

Philosopher kings?
These issues will soon be moot in America.

The end of the Empire is just around the corner. Peak oil has arrived and our attempt to control the world's supplies of petroleum to the exclusion of developing nations like China and India will backfire.

There need not be a military catastrophe. China need only refrain from buying more American debt to destroy the dollar and, within a few weeks, the US will be in the position of Cuba after the fall of the USSR ie. the lights will have gone out and we will be trying to retrieve the old technologies of animal power and organic gardening. Meanwhile the Chinese will retool to sell us bicycles and handplows while we melt down our wives jewelry for the gold to pay for the imported hardware.

This will be a good thing for the environment but rather stressful for Americans who will have to negotiate these changes and reconfigure their society to reflect their new sitz im leben. Memories of a time when we were actually considering these issues as in need of imminent resolution will provoke laughter and wonder around the campfire.

Yes. We are evolution become conscious of itself for the first time. I hope enough of us survive to ponder the lessons of history.
January 31, 2007
Votes: +0

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